At last, something good to read for small bookshops

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The Independent Culture

Just over a year ago, the future of the nation's independent bookshops looked grim. Competition from internet sites, supermarkets and discount-offering chain stores appeared to be eliminating the lone operators from town high streets.

But a year is a long time in the bookshop trade. Latest statistics reveal that in 2007 the "indies" made a remarkable comeback. According to annual figures from the Booksellers Association (BA), the decline in the number of independent booksellers was halted last year after numbers had plunged in 2006, when indies were closing at a rate of almost two a week.

Yet 81 new independent bookshops opened in 2007, more than making up for the 72 which closed the same year, according to The Bookseller magazine.

Meryl Halls, head of membership services at the BA, said: "Early indications are that Christmas was strong," she said. "As one of our members has said, 2007 saw the renaissance of the independent bookselling sector, and this story would seem to be borne out by both new shops opening and sales performance."

Statistics from the consumer research group, BML, revealed a 6 per cent increase in the volume of independents' book sales since 2003, compared with a 3 per cent fall at chain retailers.

Michael Neil, the managing director of the book wholesaler, Bertrams, said he felt more people were opening independent bookstores because "they like the idea of being a bookseller".

"It's seen as a noble thing to do. As the chain bookstores have consolidated over the past 18 months, there are opportunities for good local indies to step in. There is a thirst for authenticity, and shopping at an indie bookstore seems to be part of that," he said.

There are early signs that indies could continue to build on last year's success. Foyles plans to open two new branches this year , and the London independent store, Crockatt & Powell, has plans for a second outlet in west London.

However, there have been some high-profile losses in the past 12 months. The Peak Bookshop in Derbyshire went into administration in August, two months after its Chesterfield store closed, while the iconic Pan Bookshop in west London announced that it would close this month after 32 years of trading.

The crisis experienced by many independent booksellers over recent times has been exacerbated by supermarkets selling blockbuster book titles at cut price, as well as the boom in internet sites such as Amazon.

When JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hit the high streets last year, supermarkets were selling it at lower prices than most indies could offer. In response, Crockatt & Powell developed a tongue-in-cheek "buy one get nothing free and no money off" offer, when it decided to sell the seventh Harry Potter novel at full price – £17.99 – but give £9 to the local primary school to spend on books for its library. It was a move that appealed to local parents. On its blog, the bookshop urged readers: "C'mon folks, cancel your pre-orders at the giants and help us give a little back."

Across the country, more and more book-buyers appear to be doing just that.

'We can make decisions based on local needs'

Robert Topping, bookshop owner, Bath

The decision to open an independent bookshop in Bath just 150 yards from a Waterstone's branch was described by many as "a courageous move".

Nearly a year later, Topping & Company is thriving. Authors including Nigella Lawson, Sebastian Faulks and Alan Bennett have held readings there, Bennett attracting almost 2,000 people.

The shop offers reading groups and literary suppers as well as making tea and coffee for its customers. It stocks around 35,000 books despite its modest size and is believed to be the largest non-specialist independent bookshop to open in the past 40 years.

Its owner, Robert Topping, said: "When you run an independent bookshop, everyone in it contributes to making decisions and many are based on local needs. There's a sense of energy that comes from that, the choice of books is more eclectic and depends on the community as well as the staff, who have particular bents that all go towards creating a lively atmosphere. We can make speedy decisions, we don't have to consult committees like bigger chain stores might and authors often prefer the independent bookshop experience as well."

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